It is no cliché to say young people are our future. Their creativity, vibrancy and energy allow them to learn, transform and contribute an enormous amount. However, with over 200,000 youngsters officially living in poverty, rarely do any get the chance to unlock their potential.
Society used to be full of opportunities for entrepreneurs but it has become a place where only academic achievement and solid corporate experience count. Individual talent is seldom discovered and appreciated without a good academic background.
Unfortunately, access to good secondary schooling and subsidised undergraduate programmes is inadequate. Less than 20 per cent of secondary school graduates are admitted to university degree programmes. With such keen competition, youngsters in vulnerable social groups, such as ethnic minorities and those in poverty, face even bigger hurdles to succeed.
At present, more than 10 per cent of our youths are jobless, triple the general unemployment rate. Young people from poorer families find it harder to move up the social ladder, and are often trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty.
Tackling poverty is everyone's responsibility. As one of the most important stakeholders in society, the business sector can make a significant contribution to alleviating poverty through active involvement.
The development of young people tops the UN agenda. A UN Population Fund report says the implementation of "youth employment strategies focusing on youth entrepreneurship training, micro-credit schemes, the development of vocational training and career guidance services, youth leadership training, youth targeted labour-intensive programmes, and the acquisition of ICT skills" could create more job opportunities and ensure young people's participation. This could stimulate economic growth and halve poverty by 2015.
In recent years, the concept of corporate social responsibility has gained substantial support in the business sector. Not only can it help build a company's positive image, but innovative practices aimed at tackling social problems can profit both society and the company. The skills shortage in the labour market is a major challenge for many companies. Corporate social responsibility managers can therefore help provide a future workforce with the right skill sets for a particular sector, while building a healthy community where the company is located. Poverty alleviation generally focuses on giving direct subsidies to people in need; however, this views people as passive recipients and undermines everyone's potential. Companies worldwide are seeking new corporate social responsibility projects aimed at youth empowerment.
Locally, one hotel company, together with the Council of Social Service, has launched a six-week internship programme for youngsters from ethnic minorities. The optimism of the first batch of eight has impressed managers and helped change preconceptions. Meanwhile, the interns have developed an interest in hotel management and some have applied to study hospitality as a career.
To really make an impact, corporate social responsibility must genuinely understand community needs. That comes from communication with various stakeholders in society, including non-governmental organisations, employees and the government.
Ultimately, tactfully implemented projects add value to a company and help create a more caring society.
Cliff Choi Kim-wah is business director (public engagement & partnership) at the Hong Kong Council of Social Service